Alicia Oltuski  


The West is Not Won

In the years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, an excitement spread over the city of Berlin, but this sentiment eluded my father, who was at work carpeting the floors of a secretarial school when the partition began its scrutinized descent. He was skeptical of the whole thing, even as he watched its coverage on television later that night, as though the news were indulging in an elaborate series of optical illusions. He refused the carbonated apple juice my mother had poured in celebration.

A few weeks later, when she deemed it safe to go and when there weren’t as many naked hippies, my mother took us to witness what was happening to our country. We tasted chocolates that had never touched our lips. We heard grown men crying. And we saw a lot of breasts. Women from the west took off their shirts in our honor. My brother snapped a few photographs of these historic events.

As my father became convinced that East Germany was condemned to disappear, he wondered how this development might be used for a profit. He set his eyes on a small storefront and decided on a nostalgia shop for all things East. So while the rest of the country tried to move on, my parents put its antiquated oddities up for sale. It wasn’t a goldmine, but for a while, our merchandise did reasonably well. Most popular was the postcard version of the sign that read, Achtung sie verlassen jetzt West-Berlin, which had warned visitors that they were leaving the west side of the city, and really, the world.

At the wall that day, my mother had looked up at the sky, and told us we were lucky. But eight years later, our luck was wearing thin. Much like that of Eastern Germany, our family’s assets were flailing. Our closest friends, the Krohns, had already moved in with Alexander Krohn’s parents, a disgrace my father was unwilling to suffer, especially since his own parents had already offered.

That spring, he committed himself to finding a solution, an idea that would tempt forth a feasible revenue from the small nostalgia shop. It was located not one but two kilometers away from Checkpoint Charlie: a death sentence.

He considered selling the store, but it was a relatively small space and the only piece of property that had ever made my parents landowners. The second idea was my brother’s, an escort service. A boy he tutored in math had a cousin who gathered educated women from Frankfurt, Munich, and Berlin to accompany foreign businessmen on dinner meetings. Right now, the girls convened in someone’s apartment, but the business was growing, and they needed a more professional rendezvous point.

How is our store a professional meeting place?” asked my mother.

Chris waved her off and looked at my father, who seemed to be considering the proposal.

No,” said my mother, propping her elbows on the table and moving her chair in, to show that she was still part of the negotiations. “Where do these girls even come from? Do we know they’re legal?”

This boy’s rich, and I’ve met his cousin. He makes a lot of money.” Since he’d entered high school, my brother seemed to have withdrawn into an underworld of dubious acquaintances, none of whom we’d met. With a hint of regret in his voice, my father declined the offer and reminded Chris to keep receipts of the boy’s parents’ payments.

The reenactment idea came to my father in the shower. The way he tells it, he felt the water go cold once again and thought, “It’s like the wall falls every day.” I suspect this dramatizes the situation a bit freely, but either way, that night at dinner, he was saying to my mother, “We should do the wall. At the shop.”

What do you mean, do the wall?”

Every day, for tourists. We should build the wall, dress people up, act out the history, the whole package. People are obsessed with the wall. It’s half of why they come to Berlin.”

My mother cleared a piece of chicken from her braces. She seemed skeptical, so my father continued his campaign.

At Checkpoint Charlie, they pay I don’t know how much for a picture with a guard. A fake guard. We can do the fake wall.”

But there’s still part of the real wall,” I pointed out, and my father shot me a toxic glare, signifying his disappointment in my lack of faith.

They don’t want the real wall. If they wanted the real wall, they wouldn’t buy plastic bubbles with fake wall inside.”

We’re not sure they’re fake,” said my mother. “And if they are, people may not know that.”

They want the show. So we’ll give them the show,” said my father, pushing away from the table; he had made up his mind.

After lobbying eleven travel agencies, he was able to get one to include a brochure for showings of Die Mauer in its Berlin tourist package.

The first three weeks were desolate. My father insisted we practice, sometimes outside, both to hone our skills and to attract the curiosity of innocent passersby. All we got was a polite request from the flower shop next door to take our “crafts project” back indoors where we didn’t block her display.

Our first customer was a single Japanese man who had mistaken our shop for an actual theatre. His disappointment upon entry was palpable, but my father convinced him to stay by offering him admission at half-price and throwing in a free picture in a Volkspolizei uniform. After the visit, and what must have been an angry phone call to the travel agency, we were forced to revise our brochure, costing my father an extra six hundred Marks. In return, the manager of the agency agreed to do a better job hyping our show. Miraculously, it resulted in a steady—if small—stream of customers.

By mid-summer, we were doing three shows a day. At eleven, two-thirty, and five, my mother and I put on our fake guns and pretended to guard the papier mâché wall we had erected in our store before a modest audience of about seven people on average. On a projector screen, we aired reels of questionably copyrighted news clips that my father had collected from the library. Five minutes later, my brother would come in, wearing the noble demeanor of John F. Kennedy, and declare that he was a Berliner, which, in all fairness, he was. My father then demanded that the wall be torn down, and my brother obliged while my mother and I applauded.

When the show was over, I ushered all the females into a section of the room partitioned by a curtain, where they were allowed to choose from a variety of outfits in which to be photographed. My father and brother took the men to the supply closet for the same purpose, and my mother was left to clean up the mess of reunification.

Our newly revised package included a selection of four outfits that visitors could be photographed in. We had male and female Volkspolizei uniforms, east hospital nurse ensembles (female only), and a retired outfit my father’s brother saved from his own service as a government technician in the early 80s. Actually, my grandparents had saved it. It was the only thing my father agreed to take back with him from his last visit over there, refusing the second set of groceries my grandmother had waiting in the kitchenette for him. We ate dinner there, but took no leftovers.

The women were always giddy with dress-up, but I could tell it was the men who satisfied longings they didn’t know they had. The People’s Police uniforms were by far the most popular, and sometimes we had to launder them more than once a week. For skinnier visitors, we tied a rope around the pants. My brother set up the green screen, hooked up to his computer, so that our customers could choose from a background of the Wall in 1976, the Wall in 1989, the Brandenburg Gate, and, inexplicably, my mother’s favorite botanical garden.

As time went on—and more Americans frequented our store—we became adventurous. We took history into our own hands. Munich’s clock tower was added to our folder of backgrounds, as was Frankfurt’s opera house, and, at my mother’s urging, The Eiffel Tower. People who came in bought replicas of the 1961 map of Germany and posters of the GDR and Soviet Union’s leaders kissing. They purchased extra pictures of their families dressed up as the guards we had once seen patrolling our city. They told their friends, who came in to purchase more pictures, and to watch us tear down the wall every day.

The ominous parts of East German life had no place in our little shop, with the exception of a drawer beneath the cash register, where my mother kept a newspaper clipping that reported the death of Peter Fechter, the eighteen-year-old boy who was shot by guards while trying to make his way across the border, and was saved by no one—not the East and not the West—as he died bleeding.

By the end of the summer, our wall was splintering. The clumps of papier mâché my mother had bound together so tightly had started to flake. Chips turned to cracks. We’d already had to sacrifice the easternmost portion of our structure when it split in half after a particularly violent rendition at the end of one day, when my brother had used his boot to topple the mock concrete. My father swiped the back of his hand across Chris’s forehead, and one of the spectators, a large Venetian woman who had asked us for an additional discount, had let out a little scream and scuttled her two teenaged children out of our store before we were even able to wrap up.

But the crumbling wall was the least of our problems. Tourist season was coming to an end, and it was clear that our success would fade away just as soon as the visitors did. School was starting soon, and Chris and I would be available only in the afternoons, leaving my mother and father to run the show, tend the cash register, and keep an eye out for shoplifters all on their own for three quarters of the day. Not to mention navigating the world of the Apple computer that we relied on to print our customers’ photos, a machine that terrified and bedazzled them almost as much as the west.

Most of all, we had all come to accept that a good third of our patrons came to look at my brother. Most of them were girls, but some were women. My father would even let Chris help the occasional female into a uniform, if she was wearing something tight enough to slip the outfit over her own and didn’t need to change her pants or top. But the prettiest ones, Chris referred over to me, I assumed to preserve some degree of mystique.

The last customer I remember well was a girl about Chris’s age, maybe eighteen. We had just finished a careless afternoon performance, in which my brother actually pronounced “Ich bin ein Berliner” the way it was supposed to be pronounced and no one laughed at Kennedy’s accent, but the girl still clapped. The friend who was with her looked around the room, bored.

I assumed she would want the nurse getup, but, though we had two freshly cleaned women’s uniforms, she asked for a men’s outfit. So I walked to the supply closet. My uncle’s technician’s overalls dangled from a hanger on the wall, like a ball gown in a department store display window. He had moved to America eight years ago—the first chance he got. Now he worked installing cable television for families in Virginia. Once a year, he sent my parents a picture of the Capital and some money in Dollar form. Each year, my parents took the bus to the currency exchange booth near the train station, and I wondered why he couldn’t just send the same amount in Marks and spare them the hassle. His uniform would be much too big for the girl’s bony arms and a stomach that didn’t even seem to fill out her own pants. Plus, I thought she was too pretty for it. Her black hair had only one color—definitely the work of a dye job, but beautiful, nonetheless—and she had green eyes that seemed always to be looking down at me, although she stood at least five centimeters shorter. I grabbed the police uniform and carried it to the changing area.

This is perfect,” said the girl, smiling directly at me, as though we were

involved in some conspiracy. I surveyed the outfit as I hung it up for her, trying to figure out what was great about it.

Could you help me?” she asked as I was about to pull the curtain closed. “It’s pretty heavy.” She pointed to the uniform. So I stayed.

Where are you from?” I asked, offering her a plastic basket for her pants. She wore a thong with the word Welcome imprinted in gold in the crotch area, which I pretended not to see.

Munich.” I held out the police pants for her to step into and thought of the clock tower. She laughed slightly when I asked her to take off her shirt, but she took it off in a single swift movement that led me to believe she had been taking off her shirt quickly for years.

I’m sorry,” I said. “Let me know if the buckle hurts you.”

No, no. I’ll be fine. Am I ready?”

Almost.” I took out the face paint and varnished two black streaks below her eyes. No one in my family had ever seen a policeman in warrior paint, but sometime in July, my father decided it would be a good touch.

When the girl had her military boots on, I opened the curtain of the dressing room and her friend whistled. The pants were so long on her that she had to grab two handfuls of spare material at the knees to walk. My father brought out the album of background choices, and when she opted for the Berlin Wall 1976, Chris set the computer so that its screen warped into a spread of grays and blues and a wall as solid and unconquerable as a mountain range. The black-haired girl stood on her tiptoes for the shot and winked. Then she went to watch Chris print it.

Do you like it?” she asked, looking at the computer.

Chris smiled.

My friend said it was stupid to pay for this.”

The picture’s free.”

I know. I mean, the whole thing. But I wanted to come.”

I’m glad you decided to,” said Chris. He had stopped addressing her in the formal you.

I moved to Berlin, you know. Just last week. We wanted to look around before getting a job.”

Well, let me know if you need help looking,” I heard Chris say. The girl pulled up the waist line of her uniform, but it slipped right back down beneath her midriff. She leaned her weight on the military boot closer to the computer desk, and the right side slid down farther. They watched as her photograph struggled out of our printer.

My mother sat by the cash register, oblivious to our customer’s advances on my brother. She was reading a novel in a mystery series she’d once accidentally subscribed to, but has kept reading since. When the girl and her friend came to pay, my mother asked politely, “How are you liking Berlin?”

We haven’t been here for very long yet, so I don’t think we’ve really seen everything the city has to offer. But now we’ll already have a souvenir.” They were standing beneath the picture of Chancellor Willy Brandt my mother had hung on the dip in the ceiling. She’d turned that section into a little gallery of Willy, whom she referred to often and by first name. “He was the reason we all got back together,” was how she put it, as though what had happened to Germany were all one complicated love story.

We still don’t get TV reception like some other parts of the country do,” my mother was saying now. “I’m sure it’s better where you’re from.” The girl nodded empathetically.

Where will you go next?”

The Old Museum.”

That’s terrific!”

Have you ever been to the Old Museum?” I asked my mother while Chris walked the girls out.

Only to piss,” she whispered.

When my brother came back, he went over to the computer and printed a second copy of the girl’s photo. That night, I saw him take it into his bedroom and put it in the drawer of his nightstand, next to his Walkman and the lifesavings I knew he kept wedged between two postcards. While he was showering, I went into his room to look at it. The girl had not fully closed her winking eye so that, through the lids, the green of her pupil shone through like an emerald. She looked more intense in the picture than she had seemed in our store, more intense than some of the actual guards I’d seen walking the city when I was younger.

Mrs. Krohn was the fanciest woman in my parents’ friend circle, a rank she’d somehow managed to preserve despite the fact that, by now, everyone knew she was living in her in-laws’ two bedroom apartment with her husband and daughter. She wore all of her jewelry every time she went out, but it harmonized acceptably, so that the silver chain and bracelet, the unexceptional pair of tourmaline earrings and the matching ring looked like they’d emerged from a bottomless reserve of trinkets, there to fit any occasion. She wore it with pride, even arrogance. So it was surprising when she came into our store to ask for a job the first week of September. Of course, she walked in under the pretense of having a look at our renovations, referring to the renovations my parents had done when they first bought the place.

This is even better than Alex described it!”

When she noticed the box of discontinued Orchidee hair barrettes my mother had opened up at the counter, she let out a laugh that came off slightly more desperate than I could ever imagine Anita Krohn meaning to sound.

Show me around,” she said to my father, although there wasn’t much to show that you couldn’t see as soon as you entered the store. My father gave her a tour, neglecting neither the changing room nor the supply closet, where he proudly pointed out his brother’s technician’s uniform.

He’s in America now.”

Remarkable,” said Mrs. Krohn, nodding distractedly.

Virginia,” my father articulated carefully, as though the word were a bomb that would detonate if not accurately pronounced.

I watched as Mrs. Krohn moved closer to my father. At one point, when he showed her our selection of backgrounds, which, by now, had grown to include the Rhine River, she put her hand onto the lapel of his shirt. But it wasn’t until she was standing at

the door that she asked for work. Outside the store, a group of boys were laughing at cartoon pictures of the Virgin Mary. When you turned them upside down, they resembled vaginas.

My father looked pained. “Oh dear, Anita. You know, we’re not doing very well ourselves. If I had to be honest, I would tell you we’re barely surviving here.” I was standing behind the Vita Cola fridge, pretending to busy myself restocking it, but even from the back of the store, I could see in Anita what I hadn’t seen before: she was hungry. Not hungry in the way my grandparents had been during the war, wandering Eastern Europe, nor in the way people in Third World countries are. But her lips were chapped, and her navy suit jacket hung a bit looser on her than it should have. I felt embarrassed for Mrs. Krohn and for us, as well.

It was only a few minutes after she left that Chris came out of one of the changing rooms in a t-shirt that said #$%* the East, and my father grabbed him by the back collar.

That’s not funny.”

My brother pried himself loose. “I got it from your shit store.”

Well then, pay for it.”

Chris took five Marks out of his wallet and threw them on top of the computer. “The rest you can take out of my nonexistent paycheck,” he called as he left the store.

I thought things were good this summer,” my mother said.

Good this summer,” my father muttered at her. “Do you know what the entire summer got us? Four months’ rent.”

My mother looked at the computer, as though, if she implored it, it might help us out.

The apartment was quiet when I walked in one Saturday night in early fall. My mother

was reading in the living room.

Do you even like them?” I asked.

Like what?”

The mysteries.”

She shrugged.

Then why do you read them?”

Sara, I don’t know,” she said, sighing. “What else am I supposed to do?”

Where are they?” I asked.

They’re cleaning the store and brainstorming for new opportunities.”

It’s late.”

They wanted to see if they could come up with any ideas.”

Let’s go there, too.”

I’m tired.”

It’ll help if we’re there,” I said. They had taken the car, so we took the bus. On the ride over, I thought of Mrs. Krohn, about how very tired our parents must be. To have seen the greater part of a country’s life. It seemed so exhausting now. When my mother and I got off the bus, I walked briskly, charged with the notion that we were going to come up with something tonight. I was walking so quickly that I was half a block ahead of her, and so I was the first one to see.

The display lights had been turned off, and the room was filled with girls in dresses the colors of wild flowers. The radio was tuned softly to a rock station that got drowned out by the energy in the store. Our small bathroom was occupied by a gush of women fixing their hair and makeup. Among the crowd, I recognized one of the girls; her green eyes. She was wearing a short yellow halter dress and an atlas of makeup that camouflaged her face into ordinariness. She was talking to some of the other girls, one of them the friend who had accompanied her that day. When I caught her eye, she smiled. Some of the girls looked even younger than she was, maybe my age, maybe even sixteen. Two of them, it seemed, spoke only Polish. I tried to imagine all these girls at dinner meetings with businessmen, but I couldn’t. They weren’t dressed for fancy restaurants.

In the back of the room sat my father and brother on the folding chairs our audience used when we acted out the fall of the Berlin Wall. My father gazed over the elements of his shop now rendered useless—the racks of old perfumes and sports gear, items I remember my parents pouring over in catalogues or warehouses, some of them difficult to track down. They bargained on the phone with private owners, throwing themselves into the enterprise, as though they were bidders at an auction.

A young man, presumably the math student’s cousin, started gathering the women around him, handing out telephone numbers. The room was loud and filled with heady, girlish energy. Then the man asked for quiet and got it immediately. My father and brother obeyed, too, as though they were answering to a new boss. They looked out of place in their plain clothing. The man wore a suit and tie, and all the girls wore dresses or skirts.

My mother, first confused, then registering the meaning of all these women in our store, passed uncomfortably among the small crowd until she reached my father.

I tried, but it wasn’t working,” he said, despondent.

You’re a slob.”

There was no money.”

You could have told me. We could have tried other things.”

My father stood up, and it was only then that I realized how much taller than her he was. “You think this is the end of the world?” Picking up on the dispute, the man in charge ushered the girls toward the door. “Look,” roared my father, marching over to the cash register and pulling out the photograph of Peter Fechter from the drawer.

My mother took the clipping from his hands, studying the poor dead boy’s face. In black and white, he stared up at all of us sadly, as though he knew what was coming.

Tell the girls they can come back,” my father said quietly to Chris. My brother then nodded to the man at the door, and the girls walked back in a line, as though their reentry had been rehearsed. They looked neither at my mother nor at me. I, however, couldn’t look away. Their collective makeup put my eyes into a trance, and I gazed at it like I used to gaze at those hidden image pictures. If I stared long enough, a deeper vision would emerge.

Peter Fechter in hand, my mother walked out of the store into the cold October air. For a moment, I couldn’t move, still spellbound by what was transpiring in our shop, but I assumed I should follow her out.

She was standing in front of the flower store next to ours, fingering the plant refrigerator they kept outside.

When the wall came down,” she said to me, “the world seemed so open. Like there was no end to what could be done. I was so proud.”

I remember the new chocolates we had when you took us to the wall.”

She laughed. “Stupid. Those were chocolates I brought from home.”

Really? They tasted different.”

My mother shrugged. “It was a new time. Even children knew that.”

It didn’t feel like a new time anymore. Soon, the first car would arrive and the girls would trickle out of our shop like a family of ducks, waddling in their high heels, hugging themselves to keep warm.